Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you do not deserve your accomplishments, that you are a fraud. I’m always amazed at how common imposter syndrome is (is there anyone who doesn’t feel like an imposter at least sometimes?), and am glad that it gets discussed more now. If you’re looking for some great general posts on imposter syndrome and how to conquer it, check out this (by Hope Jahren) and this (by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College).*
For this post, I want to focus on one particular question: does the myth of the solo genius scientist contribute to imposter syndrome?** By “the myth of the solo genius scientist”, I am referring to the idea of a lone scientist, hard at work in his lab (and it is pretty much always a “him” in these stories), making great discoveries all on his own. As Athene Donald wrote, “The heroic genius was always something of a myth, convenient shorthand to make it easier to make a narrative out of the act of discovery; an exciting tale, but not a very accurate depiction of how science and scientists operate.”
I think people would generally agree that, as has been the general trend in science, ecology has become much more collaborative in the past decades. In some cases, the increase in the number of authors on papers might simply reflect a trend towards more generous coauthorship (I have a post on this topic planned), but I think it also reflects a true shift towards more collaborative work. Tackling interesting questions requires a diversity of approaches. As I wrote in that earlier post, “There is no way that one person can do everything. In my case, I am finding more and more often that the questions I’m interested in require genetic skills that I do not possess. And I am very, very good at getting myself in over my head with a planned theoretical analysis. This is part of why collaborations are so valuable.”
As I’ve thought about questions of imposter syndrome recently, I’ve realized that I feel the most like a fraud when thinking of projects that are collaborative, and I wonder if it relates to the myth of the solo genius scientist. When there’s a paper that is just from my lab, I feel like that is somehow “better”, in that it shows self-sufficiency (even though, of course, it was still collaborative with the people in my lab.) People tend to hold up solo-authored papers as especially noteworthy. While pre-tenure, I had multiple people tell me that I should make sure I had papers independent of my long-term collaborator, Spencer Hall, even though he and I were at roughly the same career stage.*** The implication was, clearly, that people might not know what I had done vs. what Spencer had done, and that might be held against me – in other words, I might be viewed as having ridden his coattails. Sometimes this annoyed me; I knew I had brought valuable skills and ideas to the collaboration and I felt like it would be ridiculous not to collaborate with Spencer and his lab just to avoid those criticisms, since I think the work that results benefits tremendously from our collaboration. But, when I was feeling less confident, I wondered if maybe those people were right.
This is why I think the answer to my question is “yes”. I think it’s no accident that I don’t feel especially impostery when I collaborate with someone on genetic analyses, but I do when I collaborate on theoretical work. Women are stereotyped as not being good at math (as far as I know, there is no such stereotype related to molecular work), and so I think that triggers more of the feelings of fraud. To be clear, I’m not saying that I think that’s the entire reason for imposter syndrome, but I think it can contribute.
So, I think it’s important that we recognize that probably those solo geniuses that the myths are about weren’t really operating on their own. Even if they were, science today is highly collaborative, which means that new skills are required. In particular, the ability to recognize when you need assistance from others to tackle interesting questions and the ability to establish and maintain successful collaborations are important scientific skills, too, even if they might not be viewed as being as important as sheer brilliance.
Do you suffer from imposter syndrome? If so, do you think feeling like you should be able to do it all on your own (but can’t) contributes?
* On the general subject of dealing with imposter syndrome, I like these sections of the posts I linked to above:
From Maria Klawe:
Ask for help and take it, recognize that such feelings are common and are often connected to high degrees of success, surround yourself with people who encourage you, share your feelings with others, celebrate your successes, be willing to try new approaches if your usual one isn’t working, and don’t let your fears stop you from giving your best effort.
and this from Hope Jahren:
By the way, the folks telling you that you should just grow a thick skin and not care what people say are not your real friends. A thin skin is the way to go. Only if you let the criticism cut to the bone can you fully examine the wound and clean it up so it can heal. But promise me that you’ll also let the praise in, and absorb it just as deeply.
** This is certainly related to the topic of this new Science article that just came out (summary by Scicurious here), arguing that the view in certain fields that raw, innate talent is the main determinant of success leads to the underrepresentation of women and African Americans in those fields.
*** When preparing my tenure dossier, I was advised to address head-on the topic of my long-term collaboration with Spencer, and to lay out what we’d each contributed. I did. As far as I know, it ended up not being an issue.